Those Rational Republicans

As ever, Thomas Byrne Edsall gets to the heart of the matter, this time via Stanley Greenberg’s polling of Republican voters. We’ve heard a great deal about how crazy the Tea Party types are—how outlandish their claims about the state of the Union are, how demented their personal demeanor appears, how destructive their political blackmail has been, how simply racist they must be. This characterization is satisfying because it makes Republicans inexplicable—we can treat them as the lawless Id of American politics, always returning from the domain of the repressed, always representing deviation from the pragmatic Ego of American politics.

We can wait them out, meaning that when their unruly desires are finally sublimated, and put in the proper, legible, legislative form, why then things will be better. We know the talking cure still works.

But they’re not inexplicable, these “extremists,” and they’re nowhere near emotional. They fear that Obamacare will produce millions of clients for a program—-thus the Democratic Party, and a certain species of state—-that produces dependency on the one hand and fiscal catastrophe on the other. Their fears aren’t paranoid renderings of reality, they’re perfectly plausible extrapolations of already existing socioeconomic trends—-all toward more transfer payments or “entitlements”—-and amplifications of liberal assessments of the Affordable Care Act’s probable effects.

Here’s how Edsall puts Greenberg to use:

“In the six focus groups of Republican voters, according to Greenberg’s report, “few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms,” but

the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.

“Voters like this, according to the report, are convinced they have lost the larger battle:

While many voters, including plenty of Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done, Republicans think he has won. The country as a whole may think gridlock has triumphed, particularly in the midst of a Republican-led government shutdown, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.

“In his report for the Democracy Corps, Greenberg describes the Republican base electorate as fearful of being strategically outmaneuvered:

They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy-—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.

Just so—-“not just a political ideology or economic philosophy,” but an electoral strategy, not one thing or the other but all of the above. In the age of the permanent campaign, that is, in this historical moment, in these times, when the difference between an electoral and an governing coalition disappeared, an electoral strategy is an agenda for and a method of governance (think of how Obama won in 2008), and as such it involves not merely short-term bargaining but long-term purposes, and those purposes must include calculations about how government functions to validate or disable the programmatic positions of the party at the state and federal levels.

No wonder Edsall compares the Republicans to the slaveholders of the antebellum South-—and the divisions of our time to those.



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6 responses to “Those Rational Republicans

  1. I like this. Reminds us that “we” look as terrifying to them as “they” do to us, and that the right’s thoughts do have a conceptual coherence that can be called “rational.” However, it does not make the case that they are acting rationally in the narrow sense of that word: to act in one’s self-interest. I have long pondered but just begun researching the whole question of funds transfers from blue states to red states, and in broad strokes it makes clear that most citizens of red states act “irrationally”/against their self interest when they engage in ideological warfare against taxation, federal debt, and government programs — all of which they depend on more than their neighbors in blue states do. Can anyone shed light on this paradox? To put the question differently: what would happen if a powerful movement gained traction in the blue states, advocating that states may retain the bulk of all taxes collected for their own purposes?

  2. Richard Schneirov

    The answer to the paradox is in Michael Lind’s historical class analysis of the Tea Party, which I consider superior to, but not exclusive of Edsall’s.


    The so-called Tea Party represents state-level “provincial” elites based mainly in the South according to this analysis. Why would they want federal funds flowing to poor and working people in their state, which would raise their living standards and expectations when these elites depend on a low wage strategy for economic development?

    Rich Schneirov

    • Thanks for this, Rich, I agree that it complements Edsall. I object, however, to Lind’s evasion of the question of ideology–that is, the fact that these people actually believe Obama is sponsoring, and delivering, socialism.

    • Mike

      Jim is being too polite by half. I am disappointed with Lind’s analysis entirely. It does not account for the development models embraced by the prosperous New South during the last half of the 20thC.

      There is no monolithic “south” that can be categorically analyzed as such. As late twentieth century economic and social development goes, Nashville isn’t Tennessee; Atlanta isn’t Georgia; Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile are not Alabama. And particularity isn’t just regional. The states of North Carolina and Virginia can be historically subtracted from Lind’s “south” right off the top.

      To take just one painful example: North Carolina Republicans have abolished or defunded pretty much all the progressive policies and legislation that conservative Democrats took half of the twentieth century to enact — and they did it in their first 6 month legislative session. Their maniacal rush alone belies a total disregard for the consent of the governed — and most especially their corporate constituents. It’s safe to say those conservative Democrats weren’t working for themselves all those years, and it’s obvious — again, especially to business interests — that the Republicans just shot North Carolinas ( successful) economic development model in the face.

      In this case the Republicans aren’t interested in some “keep the working man down with low wages” bullshit — North Carolina hasn’t been that place for many years. Rather, this is the legislative equivalent of standing astride social history and yelling “Stop!” It’s ideological. It’s hysterical. It’s terrified. It’s immediately and eminently economically self-destructive. The craven economic interests may be served by these policy choices — Hell, of course they’ll be served by them — but they did not drive the choices to begin with.

  3. Richard Schneirov

    Mike: Post-Civil War “New South” Democrats sought to attract Northern capital with low wages, anti-unionism, low taxes, minimal regulations on business, etc. This is still the policy of much of the South, though progressive changes were successful in North Carolina and may still come back. Look at Texas’ approach to economic development: steal other states’ businesses with the above policies.


  4. I think one of the questions this raises, in regards to ideology, is what drives the Right’s dislike of the “socialism” they are criticizing? Is it so much “socialism” or is it a perceived threat to their power? Programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are popular with many of the TEA Party rank and file, only becoming unpopular when it is perceived that social programs are going to help those who are deemed “unworthy.” Much like the Libertarians then (who claim to have an ideological difference of individual liberty) what is shown is that the driving force is a question of power. Who will control who benefits from these programs? Who will direct the expansion and application of the “socialist” policy? If it is a Federal Government, which is more reflective of a diverse population, then it can be a direct challenge to provincial rule of state and municipal leaders. A monolithic South then emerges in terms of very general cultural attitudes and is in alliance with other geographic regions, like rural Midwestern communities, that too are dominated by local provincial elites who share both general ideological and cultural attitudes and a shared concern for a more diverse Federal level of government.

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